Cassettes in the age of digital - a chat with tape label Minimal Impact
Minimal Impact is a cassette label from Brisbane, Australia. Discipline Mag had a chat with Tristan of Minimal Impact on the cassette economy, cassette tech, their process, and the symbolism behind mechanised music formats and industrial/noise. Read on for the trials and tribulations of running a tape label in the digital age.
Hi Tristan, thanks a lot for taking the time to speak to Discipline Mag. What kind of music does Minimal Impact release and what are some of your current projects with the label?
Firstly, I would also like to take a moment to clarify the branding of this label / project. Since 2018, the label has operated as simply Minimal Impact, having dropped the adjunct Noise from all subsequent communications (it still exists in some online URL’s). Similarly, to effectively bolster a sense of authority and to differentiate it from any other existing online profiles, Label has been added to the Instagram profile, which was started in early 2020. Officially, the label is simply Minimal Impact.
The label operates on an ad-hoc basis to release so-called extreme, difficult or experimental music. The main focus is on noise and avant-garde electronic music. However, we have also released demo tapes for black metal and grindcore bands. It started out simply as a platform to release or historicise my own recordings, but I have increasingly been working with other recording artists as well.
Primarily my interest is in harsh noise and industrial music. Recently I have released tapes for Strangler Fig, sherman & field, Eco Terror, and Tiles, which are all noise or industrial projects from around the country. I have also formed a relationship with Brian who operates Shrouded Recordings over in Oregon in the United States and have released one EP and one split for his harsh noise project SBTDOH.
Another recent milestone has been the two Hinterkaifeck demos. Working on and off with drummer E. has been a pleasant experience overall. Aside from perhaps one or two other projects, the recent re-issue of their demo Kak will likely be the last guitar / drum based release for the label.
What inspired the birth of Minimal Impact and why did you decide to take the route of being strictly cassette releases?
As mentioned before, the initial drive came from releasing my own recordings. It’s easy to create your own platform with all the tools available to young or aspiring creatives, however creating any sense of success is another. Short of simply uploading tracks to Bandcamp or Soundcloud, creating physical releases is a good method of giving agency and networking a project.
The primary interest in cassettes comes from a retrospective look at music history/industry. Yes, there is a nostalgic interest having grown up to a degree with the medium, however there is as much an idea about pastiche and medium specificity woven into the releases. The very nature of recording is often one of retrospection and divergence, and I think cassettes have historically been used to exemplify this (see all rhetoric about tape hiss, Nth-generational copies, “dubbed from master tape”, etc). This experience can be equated to a kind of semiotic violence, as there is always damage or loss involved. Original audio and visual content are reproduced, and a degraded experience is distributed in its place.
Secondly, the label isn’t strictly a tape label. Early on, there were a few digital only releases which have since been wiped from the web. There are also some plans to work with CDr, and I have also produced editions of screen-printed t-shirts and other merchandise. There is a focus on upcycled tapes which has come about as a reaction to the proliferation of new cassettes being produced and utilised by supposedly DIY or underground type labels, as well as the whole clean-cut Internet aesthetic thing.
Many observers would likely be under the impression that the central technology to your label (tapes, tape players/recorders etc) is diminishing. Would you agree? How do you adapt your practices?
I am not sure I would be able to give an objective answer to this. Within my own observations over the past four years, I have seen many more labels appear from apparently nowhere. Similarly, given my specific practice of using upcycled cassettes, I don’t have as much insight into industry or cassette production, and can only comment on discussion I have seen online or heard from peers. There have been supply and demand issues for cassette tapes on and off in the US for a few years now. Occasionally you will see certain labels or bands unable to meet a scheduled release date, as there has been some issue down the supply chain. This is yet another more pragmatic reason why I have decided to go for the upcycled method.
In Australia, there appears to be many options for recording artists who want to have their product released on tape, so I don’t think that the medium is diminishing at all. Perhaps what is lacking is accessible and skilled repair services for decks. I’ve had decks repaired at a couple of places, and the service has been great, however there also appears to be some issue with sourcing parts. The most common issue with cassette decks is replacing the belts. With certain decks, this can be quite tricky, as they haven’t always been produced with repair or service in mind. I have been lucky that most of the decks I have bought have worked, however I also service them once a year or so to keep them in working order.
What are some of the trials and tribulations you face with Minimal Impact and how are these unique to the cassette only format?
While perhaps not unique to the format, producing tapes in real time with the equipment I have poses some quality control issues. Since mid 2018 (around the time of the first Enjoy Our Last Century on Earth rehearsal tape), there has been more of a focus on accessibility and quality control. Part of this quality control is making sure that release statements are consistent and comprehensive, and include information about the edition number and medium, (new old stock, or upcycled). Generally I will have some preliminary statement sent to distributors and posted online which includes this, and then a full statement once the tape is fully released.
There is also the issue of sound. More recent batches have seen editions of upwards of thirty hand-dubbed upcycled tapes. When dubbing to older ferric tapes, the metal oxides will have likely worn with use, so don’t always hold sound the same as newer less played tapes.
Furthermore, in an effort to provide better overall consistency and homogeneity, sticky cassette labels are used on all tapes. As the spindle holes are all hand cut, they still retain an element of the handmade. Perhaps eventually I will use pre-cut tape labels, but for the time being am happy using full A4 sheets.
Another issue I am facing is growing the label with my current methodology. Every tape I have released has been hand dubbed and hand assembled. With twenty-five titles under my belt, I have hand dubbed over 600 individual cassettes since the label's inception. Of course, I’d like to increase the runs of each release to better promote certain bands, so this would mean sourcing larger quantities of cassettes. My current method involves searching local op-shops, classified listings and online marketplaces for tape lots, but this can obviously be quite hit and miss.
Has 2020 posed any major disruptions to the label?
Definitely. Coupled with a few significant challenges in my personal life, the foreseen trajectory of my labels activities has taken a significant hit. In some ways this has been my most productive year, in others perhaps not. Initially, I had wanted to focus plenty more on booking shows locally and interstate, as well as distributing international releases. The live context is something I really value, as it adds to the complexity to a given project. Due to many restrictions on the number of possible attendees, many venues had closed for early to mid 2020. As of writing this (October, 2020), there are a number of venues which are slowly opening their doors, and ‘things are starting to happen’ again. I was given access to a creative space / artist workshop in September, where I booked Blunt Force Head Trauma and Brackish to debut their projects in a live context. The turnout was great considering everything. There are also another one or two shows which I am involved with to some degree, however these will again likely be last minute things, as my rate of communication and overall productivity has definitely slowed.
What are some advantages you think you have over labels that release on various formats?
The main attraction for me and I suppose others would be affordability. Per unit, cassette tapes often do cost more than CD’s, but I can definitely make a small profit or at least break even over a long enough period of time, with the right kind of promotion. From a consumers’ perspective, I would also prefer to purchase a cassette from a band that may or may not quite have it all, in some respects. I do like to support other creatives when possible, so the $5 tape at a show is the perfect way to do so in the fledgling stages. An act which may not have the best technical ability or image, somehow, I feel can be more appealing on tape. This, however, can obviously lead to greater quality control issues, like a project appearing to be going for quantity over quality, if they release many small runs of different recordings, or one or two sub-par recordings at high volume.
There’s also a kind of self-aware or ironic elitism about it which I enjoy. Tapes are fundamentally flawed - they can sound good, but are never or rarely ‘audiophile’ quality. To me, they’re great commentary on the music and merchandising industry. Seeing a band live vs on record, highbrow vs lowbrow, etc. They can encompass all the dualities, depending on how you want to interact with them.
There is a distinctively mechanical element to the cassette tape and this history is not unprecedented – I point to Kraftwerk’s emphasis on trains and industrial music’s theme of mechanical production. Have these ideas, or anything similar, filtered through to Minimal Impact’s cassette only mantra? Do you feel that there is a natural complement between the genres Minimal Impact works with and the cassette format?
This is an interesting take, and not one I had consciously considered. Increasingly, I have been working with recording acts whose primary means of production are mechanical as opposed to digital. Mechanical here in the sense that they use hardware. I suppose this is a quality which I have subconsciously wanted to work towards. Much of my earliest work with noise as a genre was with software, however even then I knew my interests lay elsewhere with the physical.
On a number of my own projects, I have utilized field recordings. These imbue the noise with certain qualities of the ‘real’, and depending on how they’re treated, can critically say something about the subject. For example, my solo recording moniker, Tiles, has a loose focus on psychogeography and the narratives which can be embodied when physically occupying geographical space. In my opinion, this is the project which most explores or conflates these themes.
There seems to be a resurgence in popularity with physical music, especially in regard to vinyl. From your observations, has this enthusiasm carried over into cassettes?
This resurgence appears to have been happening now for some time over the past decade, in parallel with the social media boom, and I believe we’re now looking at a bursting bubble. Many will point to things like Record Store Day or Cassette Store Day, the latter of which critically seems to be a way to cash in on the phenomena.
It seems that many novice acts prefer cassette over CD/CDr as the cheaper form of physical release. Looking at Discogs’s mid-year review from 2019 shows an increase of 8.35% in cassette sales from ‘18-’19, which is surprisingly higher than vinyl. Cassettes were also apparently the only format to have an increase in the number of database submissions, perhaps suggesting either an increase in new tapes being released or an increased interest in the format overall.
What are some of the most inventive ways that you have seen cassettes be presented? What are some of your favourite special edition/limited release cassettes?
I am not much a fan of the special packaging sometimes associated with cassettes and will generally find it much more a turn off simply for the fact that I don’t have a way of accommodating them in my collection. Even releases in polybags pose a problem. I keep them separate in a box and will generally go to the larger portion of my collection when wanting to listen to a tape. I do like polybag releases, but will generally prefer a regular jewel case over these, unless there is some extra fantastic art work to go with it. Even then, it’s amazing what you can fit into a regular fold out j card.
As far as the most inventive ways I have seen cassettes presented, there are honestly few which come to mind for the above-mentioned reason. I was recently sent a copy of a tape by Betty White Noise, which comes in a sort of plastic mesh similar to the kind used to bag fruit, then housed in a single protective polystyrene corner. The mesh also appears similar to fishnet stockings, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there is some stocking fetish themed HNW project out there which has made this connection already.
In a similar way that audiophiles can be very particular about their turntable set-up, are there any kind of rituals, specific set-ups or quirks to your sound system? Further, what do you recommend to get the most out of a cassette listening experience?
My personal listening set up is quite standard. My dubbing set up consists of five decks chained in series, with the recording volume adjusted at each stage accordingly. When listening back to any tape, for either personal reasons or when doing quality control on label releases, I will always use either my Teac A-105 or Sony TC-W345 through a stereo receiver with whichever set of speakers I happen to have. At the moment I’m using the Sherwood Piccolo 4 Bookshelf speakers, however also have another pair of unbranded vintage floor standing speakers which have some great tone.
Generally I consider the ‘proper’ way to listen to a tape is the way it comes from the label/artist, ie. no EQing or adjusting of the bass or treble. However, I would really like to invest in a full home stereo equalizer just to make some of the bare bones tapes I have stand out a little.
Whether locally or further afield, who are some labels that excite you right now?
Locally, I have been following Essential Minerals for a little while now. Along with the affiliated live demonstration/booking initiative A Natural Low. They are a well-established group of individuals who have been practicing experimental and audio-visual actions in the local context for many years now. Recently I was invited to participate in the group exhibition “The Allure of the Unaesthetic Discord,” a demonstration of sound and sculpture evolving over three weeks in September. Documentation of this can be found online.
Elsewhere in Brisbane, the burgeoning imprint Blackout has released some small-run tapes and CDrs which are as much interesting as they are enigmatic. I have just received the most recent couple of releases in the mail, so am eagerly awaiting an opportunity to check them out. Similarly, Tommy Gun (Tom Miller) has been consistently releasing quality noise for years through Head Tapes and Magik Crowbar, apparently having recently reanimated the latter for a new Psychward CDr earlier this year. Under the Sign Records has also released some very solid noise and power electronics in the past couple of years, check out Bret Parenteau’s Sick with Power CS.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Minimal Impact has just released three new cassettes by SBTDOH / TILES, Hinterkaifeck, and sherman & field. The latter are dear friends of mine who produce exploratory ambient electronic music, which ranges from soundscapes to techno. Hinterkaifeck are a great black metal duo who seem to have been doing quite well for themselves since they formed about a year and a half ago. The SBTDOH / TILES split has been a long time coming, and is I believe a great example of the short-form noise tape. It utilizes tapes which have been cut too short for any other releases, so the recordings have been quite considered and made to fit.
I also have live and rehearsal material from the industrial and harsh noise projects Blunt Force Head Trauma and Enjoy Our Last Century on Earth in the works. I am in talks with Johnny Cyrus and His Band of Ghosts about ‘releasing something,’ as well as potentially a few other yet to be confirmed projects.
Thanks again for your time.